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Ten tips for leading successful birdwalks

Birders at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, photo by Steve Hillebrand/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Birders at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, photo by Steve Hillebrand/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

One of the highlights of our April 2015 issue is Maeve Kim’s humorous and insightful article, “What Beginners Teach Us.” Maeve knows a thing or two about the subject. She’s taught classes to more than 200 new birders from age 7 to age 87, and she’s been leading birdwalks for beginners for 20 years. Her article includes the 10 excellent tips below. We’ll follow them the next time we have the opportunity to share the wonders of birds with beginners.

1. Bring extra binoculars. I’ve seen beginners struggle with compact binoculars, binoculars that were over 40 years old, and binoculars with cracked lenses. One woman even brought a tiny, elegant pair of mother-of-pearl opera glasses!

2. Teach binocular basics. At the start of any walk, make sure everyone knows how to get the most out of their optics. Check that eyecups are down for the people with eyeglasses and up for everyone else. Demonstrate how to calibrate binoculars. (This is especially important since beginners often borrow other people’s optics.) Pass around a cleaning cloth. And explain how to find birds with your eyes first, then raise your binocs.

Common terms used to describe binoculars and scopes.

Eastern Meadowlark on Withlacoochee State Trail, north of Tampa, Florida, by wahoowoman.
Eastern Meadowlark on Withlacoochee State Trail, north of Tampa, Florida, by wahoowoman.

3. Explain the clock method. Then use it to tell people where to look. Example: “There’s a bright orange bird at three o’clock in that willow.”

4. Be selective. Your goal as leader is to make sure everyone sees some birds and hears some birdsong — not that they know about every bird that you see or hear. Stop and point out birds that are close enough for beginners to get their binoculars on.

The basics of bird ID.

5. Take your time. Birds that are everyday or common to you may be brand-new to beginners. Give everyone time to watch a Song Sparrow throw its head back and sing.

6. Enjoy songs that repeat. New birders often have difficulty separating songs and calls from background noise, so let the faint, distant, buzzy warbler go. Direct attention to the catbird that’s singing repeatedly and close by. Stop the walk, describe the song, ask people to listen, talk about mnemonic tricks, and show pictures of the bird.

Cornell birders and a tour leader tell how they learned to ID birds by ear.

7. Savor common birds. When a newbie is excited about having found a Mourning Dove or European Starling, don’t treat the discovery as a “junk bird.”

8. Explain yourself. It’s good to use precise words (bill instead of mouth, for example), but don’t pepper your conversation with words like lores, supercilium, and culmen. And when you do use terms such as leading edge, take the time to explain.

9. Avoid birder’s jargon. A beginner will have an awful time searching for sharpie, spotty, mo-do, and teevee in the index of his or her field guide.

10. Bring a scope. Almost nothing is as satisfying as watching a new birder’s jaw drop as he or she gets that first good look at an Eastern Meadowlark singing on a fencepost, a Common Goldeneye drake tossing its head back, or the yellow stare of a Snowy Owl. — Maeve Kim

Maeve Kim’s article “What Beginners Teach Us” appears in the April 2015 issue of BirdWatching. See the table of contents. Subscribe.

Fun ways to make your birdwatching count.

Read Maeve Kim’s article about the differences between watching birds and getting birds. Originally Published

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